‘I must go on boasting. Though there is nothing to be gained by it, I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord…’
— 2 Corinthians 12v1
Last week, the Rt. Rev. Dr. Steven Croft, the Bishop of Oxford, published a pamphlet entitled Together in Love and Faith, in which he argued that the time had come for the Church of England to permit the blessing of same-sex marriages, and to allow clergy themselves to enter into same-sex partnerships. In the booklet, which can be read in full here, he offers the reasoning behind his change of mind on the issue, and offers what he hopes could be a way forward — a way of keeping both traditionalists and revisionists in the same broad (and broadening) church.
His reasoning is tediously familiar: after speaking to many gay and lesbian people in the church, and looking at their relationships, he changed his mind because of the powerful emotional experience of listening to their stories and observing their partnerships. He also had a few very emotional conversations with celibate Christians who are attracted to people of the same sex, and sadly he doesn’t shed any light on the process by which he chose to prioritise the perspectives of one group over the other. There are many things that could be said in response, and there are others offering excellent responses and reflections, such as Vaughan Roberts, Ian Paul, and Matthew Hosier. There’s no need to rehash what others have said elsewhere, so I will only offer one short thought, if you will allow me a somewhat cynical take: people wedded to the cultural privilege of episcopal ministry in England are unlikely to be reliable moral guides in a negative world.
Most of the Bishops of the Church of England were born in a different world: a world broadly sympathetic to Christian morals and presence in society, and a culture that might even have had some respect for men in purple shirts and mitres. Even today, despite job performance figures that would lead to a termination of contract in most other fields, they somehow manage keep their jobs, privilege, and prominence; living in splendid houses (though not as many palaces as in the past), preaching in stunning cathedrals, walking the corridors of power, and having the ear of the national press, if not their unwavering sympathy or support.
In the ongoing debate in the church over issues of sexuality, we are being asked to choose who we trust to guide the church into the future: the apostles Christ appointed (especially, on this subject, St Paul), or the Bishops of Oxford, Worcester, and elsewhere that would contradict the clear teaching of the apostles in Scripture and the unanimous witness of the catholic Church for the last 2000 years. Let’s put it bluntly: who is the more reliable guide, Bishop Steven, or Saul of Tarsus?
We could consider education and theological training, and observe that both the apostle and the Bishop have a good educational pedigree, Oxford and Durham for the Bishop, under the tutelage of Gamaliel for the apostle. We could consider their missional labours and church planting, and see that both have a reputation for innovation in evangelism. We could consider their pastoral natures, and observe that both have a genuine compassion for those under their pastoral care. We might also add that both have argued theologically for greater inclusion for those that currently find themselves outside the Church. As far as authority and divine favour, St Paul seems to have an edge, having met the risen Christ, received visions, and been taken up into Heaven, but we’ll put that to one side for now. How shall we choose between them? Here is one test that I believe sheds much light when many other things seem equal: who has suffered more? Which is another way of asking, ‘who lives and preaches more like Jesus?’
In his booklet, Bishop Steven argues that the Church of England needs to change its traditional teaching for the sake of mission. According to Croft, you cannot evangelise a culture if you occupy a different moral universe to the culture around you. Try telling that to the evangelist of the Eastern Mediterranean, and I suspect you would soon discover that you occupy a different theological universe to the Apostle. Rather than affirming the culture, Paul contradicts it: ‘For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified.’ For Paul, this was not too difficult to say or do. Why? Because he had already given up his comfort and privilege in order to announce the gospel. When Paul had nothing left to lose, he was free to preach as he was commissioned, without fear and without favour. Had Paul been concerned with maintaining a seat at the table in the government of the Roman Empire, or playing chaplain rather than prophet to a pagan nation, he might have altered his message to maintain his platform. Thank God he had already been crucified with Christ, and so considered lying in God’s name a weightier sin than being mean (Gal. 4v16) — which seems to be the greatest sin many modern clergymen can imagine. Furthermore, Paul’s resemblance with Christ is notable: while Jesus did occupy (on paper) the same moral universe as his Jewish hearers, he was still not ashamed or afraid to call them a ‘sinful and adulterous generation.’
And what about status? When asked about John the Baptist, Christ responded: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.’ Prophets rarely find homes in episcopal palaces or Oxford college chapels. They rarely wear soft shirts, purple or otherwise, or sit in the House of Lords. They are not shaken or carried about by every wind of doctrine. So with Paul — he was beaten and whipped, and often on the run. Granted, he did spend some time in palaces, but generally while under arrest. Again, the life and teaching of Paul is in perfect continuity with the prophets and Christ himself.
So when you are looking for a moral guide in today’s spiritual chaos, ask yourself: ‘What does this doctrine cost its preacher?’ Bishops who change their doctrine in order to cling to relevance would never admit they might be trying to cling to the privileges that their high office in the established church provides them, or in order to avoid public outcry against unpopular opinions. As they say, it is very hard to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it. A far more reliable guide to the truth is the one who has given up his privilege and status in order to know Christ in his suffering, who preaches the same message even when it places him in physical danger, and who understands the message and example of Christ: blessed are the poor, blessed the persecuted.
What we know is true in every other field of life holds true in theology too: listen to the one who is willing to tell a message that costs him. He is telling you the truth.